EGMT 1520: Homo Crispr - Future Humans?

Designer babies. Biohackers. Gene-edited humans. The explosion of scientific understanding surrounding genetics and heritability in the 20th and 21st centuries began an exploration into the editing of the DNA of Earth’s species. The ease and precision of the recent DNA-editing tool, CRISPR, has made human genetic engineering a reality. The first genetically modified humans were just born, and several clinical studies are in trials to use human DNA-editing to treat or cure diseases. What does this mean for the future of humanity? In this Empirical Engagements course, we will briefly familiarize ourselves with DNA-editing and CRISPR to allow us to look critically at its use in non-human organisms. What problems are scientists trying to solve and what are the consequences, both intended and unintended? One case study we will examine encompasses several attempts to genetically modify mosquitoes to fight malaria. We will look at the evidence in this and other case studies to assess what we can know about the effects of DNA-editing on an individual, a species, and more. Further, we will examine to what extent we can know the probability and benefit of a successful outcome against the likelihood and severity of harmful consequence. Armed with our evaluation of genetic modifications in other animals, we will next explore the challenges of gene-editing humans. Here we will debate the merit of making changes that are heritable (e.g. making permanent changes in embryos as Dr. He did to provide immunity against HIV) or are not heritable (e.g. ongoing clinical trials to fight cancer by modifying adult blood cells) and consequences of both for humans. We will consider what the limits on human genetic modification are given what is practical, possible, and beneficial (e.g. could we be like plants and make our calories from sunlight?). Finally, we will consider where our empirical understanding ends and to what extent it can inform our sense of what the limits should be. The goal of this course is to challenge us all to think deeply and critically about the emerging technology today and the ramifications for generations to come that may change the core of what it means to be human.